The Eagles' 18-12 win in the opener was won behind the strength of their defense's performance inside the 20-yard line. The Falcons made five trips into the red zone against the Eagles and converted just one into a touchdown. They had four goal-to-go possessions and reached the end zone just once.
Atlanta's red zone struggles, dating to last season, have been well documented. But Jim Schwartz's unit made life difficult for Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. Every team spends a great deal of time working on situational football, but several Eagles noted the extra time spent on the red zone this offseason.
Eagles cornerback Jalen Mills: Coach [Doug] Pederson puts us in those same predicaments at practice. Whether it was in camp, in OTAs, having our defense with our backs to the wall, and giving the offense three or four plays, and forcing them to try and score on us.
The field is shorter and the game moves faster down there, but Ryan completed just 2 of 9 passes for 13 yards in the red zone. He also threw an interception and was sacked once.
Ryan: They do a really good job in that low red area of playing coverage and not giving you much space, and they've got a good pass rush. It's difficult to extend plays and create something off-schedule.
Here's a closer look at how the Eagles held the Falcons to just ten points despite their five sojourns into the red zone:
RED ZONE POSSESSION NO. 1
The Falcons advanced all the way to the 1-yard line on their opening drive. The Eagles had a few missed tackles and assignments, but they clamped down at the goal line. On second down, Devonta Freeman (No. 24) ran on an inside zone. It typically takes all 11 players working in unison to deny offenses that get that close, but Fletcher Cox's (91) individual effort here stood out.
Haloti Ngata (94) and Destiny Vaeao (97) took out the interior and Cox maintained his footing to stop Freeman. It was just one of many standout moments for the all-pro defensive tackle.
Mills: [He] took over, whether it was run or pass. They had to double team him sometimes and he was getting off double teams and still getting in the backfield. He may not have been getting a sack on a play, but he was getting Matt Ryan off his spot.
On third down, the Falcons went with a three-tight-end, two-back package. Some criticized Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian for not having receiver Julio Jones on the field, but Atlanta has had success throwing out of heavy looks, and he got a favorable matchup with Freeman vs. linebacker Nate Gerry (47).
The running back was open, but Ryan overthrew him.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn rolled the dice on fourth down. Sarkisian went with three tight ends and two backs again. But Eagles linebacker Jordan Hicks (58) made a quick read, and linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill (54) set the edge.
Hicks: I knew they were going to run the ball. So it opened up, it's goal line, and I'm coming downhill. [Freeman] sees me and he bounces outside. Kamu did a great job holding that edge because if you don't have two good edges on that type of play, it's over.
RED ZONE POSSESSION NO. 2
The goal-line stop set the tone, but the defense needed another stop a series later when a punt and personal foul gave the Falcons the ball in Eagles territory. Atlanta drove to the 10-yard line and on first down, defensive end Michael Bennett (77) made a heads up play when he slowed receiver Calvin Ridley (18), who was running into the flat.
Bennett: I was like, 'Oh, he's not supposed to be open," so I just tried to slow him down.
Ryan went to tight end Austin Hooper (81) instead, but gained only three yards. Bennett, who rushed from outside and inside, had a solid debut with the Eagles. The defensive line rotation saw all four ends get about the same number of snaps – Brandon Graham 46 of 70, Bennett 45, Derek Barnett 40, Chris Long 39.
Bennett: I think it worked out pretty good. No complaints. We won the game.
On second down, cornerback Ronald Darby (21, bottom) locked down Jones (11), despite a double move, in man coverage. Ryan was forced to throw the ball away.
Schwartz doesn't get overly complicated in the red zone. On pass plays, he'll typically drop seven and rush four, and he'll play man coverage.
Jenkins: We put a big emphasis on red zone. Our scheme is pretty simple, we're really good at what we do, we detail every small thing, and we trust our players.
A Barnett offside penalty negated a Long sack on third down. But the Eagles forced a short field goal when Ryan threw incomplete to Hooper in double-coverage. The quarterback appeared to miss Freeman running free out of the backfield.
RED ZONE POSSESSION NO. 3
Safety Rodney McLeod (23) had a strong game. He missed an early tackle and would have liked to have pulled in a would-be interception, but he made plays all over the field. On this second down rush, he played in the box and ran down Tevin Coleman (26) – with the help of the hole-plugging Hicks – from behind.
A play later, Schwartz sent the house on a zero blitz. Darby left with cramps and was replaced by Rasul Douglas (23). Ryan had the matchup he wanted – Jones vs. anyone in single coverage – but he short-armed his throw.
Ryan: They went to a Cover 0 pressure. I tried to put it outside, but just threw it with too much touch.
The interception was gift-wrapped, but Douglas' technique was sound and he got both feet in bounds.
RED ZONE POSSESSION NO. 5
The Falcons' lone touchdown came after an interception. But the Eagles would rebound and make a final stand after they took an 18-12 lead with just over two minutes left.
Jones caught a 36-yard pass and an 18-yard one on third and 17 as Atlanta advanced to the Eagles 13. On second down, Schwartz dropped six and rushed five. Ryan had nothing downfield again. Cox, meanwhile, walked the guard back on skates and notched a sack.
Jenkins said that pre-snap communication – verbal and with hand signals — is key. Time is of the essence, and film study helps with anticipation.
Jenkins: We know the looks that we're anticipating. We get the guys lined and we make our adjustments and just play a pretty simple defense. … But you got to make sure you got the right matchups and everybody's in the right technique, and that takes communication between myself, Rodney, and the rest of the linebackers.
The Falcons converted third down, but with seconds left, the rushers pinned their ears back. Cox clubbed center Alex Mack (51) and hit Ryan as he threw here.
Cox: It's not about me. We had a good couple of rushes in there.
And then after a Hicks illegal contact penalty gave the Falcons one last gasp, Ryan floated a last-second pass to Jones on a play eerily like the one from January's playoff meeting. Darby, who had three pass breakups, couldn't contend at the catch point, but once Jones got his hands on the ball, the corner dragged him out of bounds.
Ryan: They had three over two coverage on our two guys. So we ran a switch release deal to give Julio an opportunity, and honestly, I did not see the play I was on the ground.